Conjuring the chocolate Health Halo

Anyone who talks nutrition around me should be careful. They might be featured in a blog post.  Case in point: today some acquaintances were talking about health products.  One of them described a new supplement that contained mushrooms and cocoa, among other things.  Mushrooms because “mushrooms are good for the brain” and cocoa because “it lowers blood pressure.”  “Says who?  Where’s the evidence?” — tempting to say that, but we live in a  post-truth culture, where true belief is more important than actual facts, a culture that runs rampant in health and nutrition.  My acquaintances would have thought I was being mean, throwing doubt on their true beliefs.  I could ask for references to double blind case controlled clinical studies, but anymore actual evidence is irrelevant.  Marketing hype is now evidence.

We have marketing hype to thank for the belief that cocoa lowers blood pressure.  The idea that chocolate has miraculous health benefits has been growing since the late 20th century, thanks to research.  What few people understand is that the research has been funded by chocolate companies.  And food companies that fund health research on their products expect shiny happy positive results that can be used for marketing.  Study design can be set up to produce data that can then be manipulated to yield some conclusion that the marketing department can use to whip up a health halo and sell products.  Anytime you read or hear that some food provides unique health benefits, think “industry funded research”.

The dairy industry may have been the first major player in this game, but they don’t have exclusive rights to the concept.  Any company or trade organization can get in on the act.  Blueberries, pomegranates, walnuts, almonds, eggs, acai and coconut are just a few recent examples.  Everyone is quick to jump on the anti-dairy bandwagon for that reason.  Why not jump on the anti-Big Chocolate bandwagon?  Probably because we like chocolate.  Plenty of people don’t like milk.  No one ever told a child “eat your chocolate or no dessert!”

As Vox Media points out, Big Chocolate has been funding dozens of pro-chocolate studies in the midst of a growing obesity epidemic.  Finding that some component of the cocoa bean — this or that flavanol — may have some minor effect on some health parameter in a few people is enough to send the main stream media into a frenzy of chocolate worship.  The public eats it up, literally and figuratively.  How many times do I have to say it:

If you slap a health halo on a food people already want to eat, they’ll be eternally grateful and buy more of it.

You see this effect in plenty of products: organic soft drinks, veggie chips (with sea salt!  Healthy!), candy bars labeled as “energy” bars, gluten-free cookies and sugary cereals with a sprinkling of oatmeal fairy dust.  Sea salt itself is a great example.  Oooooo, it’s from the sea.  It must be healthier than regular table salt.  People want to eat chips and drink soda pop and eat candy and cookies and put salt on stuff.  The chocolate health halo seems to be working just fine; sales of chocolate have grown steadily in the past 10 years.  This despite the fact the prices for those trendy dark chocolate bars have skyrocketed.  I don’t care how healthy it claims to be, I’m not paying $5 for a little 3 oz bar of chocolate.

Here’s another thing few people understand.  The chemicals in question — flavanols — are present in only tiny amounts.  You’d have to eat a lot of expensive and high calorie chocolate to get the flavanol doses used in research.  Are you willing to eat almost 6000 calories of milk chocolate a day to get your recommended dose of flavanols?  And for what benefit?  You’d gain so much weight any health benefit would be obliterated.

There’s another catch about some of this research.  In many studies, people are asked about their chocolate consumption, and that information is compared to risk for diseases.  There’s no evidence whatsoever that the chocolate caused some health effect, just that people who ate more were healthier.  What you don’t hear is whether those people had other beneficial health behaviors along with chocolate consumption.  Considering the media hype, it’s likely that people who already engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors are more likely to eat chocolate on a regular basis because they’ve heard it’s healthy.  Sort of like a self-fulfilling prophesy.  In fact I’m aware of plenty of dietitians who say they do this.

The Vox Media article expands on this issue and has some great graphics.  It’s a hopeful sign that at least some people in media are onto this hype.

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